"Down these green streets a man must go."
"There are no streets out here. They're lanes and courts and roads and avenues and ways," I answered Mackenzie. "These are upmarket byways. And currently not very green."
We drove through wide suburban not-streets lined with skeletal trees with only the slightest whisper of life. It was March, but spring seemed a rumor, a fever dream. I suspected that last month, the groundhog had seen not only his shadow, but also, the shadow of death. Nonetheless, the night felt warm with promise. We were en route to a black-tie gala, not exactly a standard activity for us. A Saturday night of wining, dining, and dancing at a fabled mansion I'd never expected to enter. I smiled in anticipation.
Mackenzie glanced over. "You look like a woman havin' delicious thoughts," he said. "I trust they're about me."
"Absolutely. About how irresistible you are in your tuxedo." He was, and it worried me somewhat. Not the attraction, but how much I loved his non-homicide-detective persona. But I wasn't going to dwell on that tonight, not while the very sight of him gave me so much pleasure.
"Good," he said. "An' though I doubt it's possible, if you ever do tire of thinkin' about me, you can think about yourself, about how radiant you look, because you do. That dress brings out the copper in your hair, makes your eyes so green…" He paused. "That dress reminds me of you. I mean you're next to me and it's not like I forgot you—but like maybe I had gone blind till now."
"Many thanks." I understood what he meant. It was one of that handful of nights in a lifetime when I knew he was correct. Not that I was as beautiful as he implied—that was not vision speaking—but that I'd been transformed into something else that I would never have admitted wanting to be.
Lacking formal attire, and unable to fill out my six-foot friend Sasha's collection of "antique" garments, I had rented a bronze silk number in a place that recycled the A-list's discards. The word gown didn't do it justice. It had been colored and cut by a fairy godmother with and advanced degree in design, and had turned out to be a magic garment, because when I wore it, there was somebody else in the mirror — somebody I wanted to be, and knew I could be, at least while I wore it. Clothes may make the man, but they remake the woman. Tonight, I wore not only a glimmer of bronze, but a sense of infinite possibility. I could present myself any way I chose, pick the play I starred in.
"Whatever makes you smile that way," Mackenzie went on in the drawl that honey-coated his every word, "I do hope it's not the Roederers. Or their palatial digs." He shook his head. "Because then you'd be a groupie for people who didn't do anything except get themselves born into families that did their thing generations ago. Bein' starstruck over pedigrees seems positively un-American of you."
"Going to their house is one thing," I said. "A vacation trip to Moneyland to see what a zillion dollars and good taste can produce. It isn't the Roederers' money I admire, but what they do with it."
He gave a grudging half nod because to do otherwise would have been ridiculous. The couple merrily sprinkled money around, primarily onto the arts, and not in the time-consuming, semi-anonymous manner of Old Philadelphia. They did not sit upon boards and ruminate. They decided what they liked, then popped cash into the hands of those who could make it happen. Their taste was eclectic, their bounty wide-reaching—and it now included Philly Prep's media center, which I wish were still called the library.
I was the unashamed fan of Edward and Theodora Roederer, known more commonly and less formally as Neddy and Tea (as in the beverage). Mackenzie had grumbled about "cutesy-pie rich people tags"—he who had no names at all. He thought that they'd missed a chance to be still more precious by not re-nicknaming Edward "Coffee" or "With lemon." "Then they'd be the complete and perfect 'We're rich-enough-to sound-as-stupid-as-we-like' couple's names," he'd commented.
"I'd think you'd be intrigued by their history. You're the buff," I now said. Neddy Roederer's middle name was Franklin. As in Benjamin, revered Founding Father and Inventor of Practically Everything. And Neddy's relative. Probably.
It is historical fact that Ben's only son, William, was born out of wedlock, and although William broke with his father in most ways by becoming a loyalist and settling in England, he followed family tradition by siring his own "natural" son, another William, who wound up serving as Granddad Ben's secretary in France. According to an Inquirer article — yes I admit, I read whatever I could find about them, which wasn't much because the Roederers shied from publicity —Edward Franklin Roederer claimed (with a wink, the reporter noted, as if he were joking or didn't really care one way or the other) that he was the descendant of the illegitimate son and grandson. The Willies, he called them, those "somewhat shady" Franklins.
Tea, the one reputed to have the fortune, had her own dazzling kin listed in the Almanach de Gotha, the who's who of Europe.
"You know what Mark Twain said about your hometown?" Mackenzie asked.
I could tell by his tone that it wasn't going to be complimentary, but as always, I couldn't resist a peek into his cluttered, over-full storage bin of a brain.
"Twain said that in Boston, they asked how much a man knew. In New York, they asked how much he was worth. But in Philadelphia, the question was, who were his parents. Nothing's changed, has it? Neddy Roederer's connection to Franklin turns the blood in his veins cobalt-blue. Which harmonizes perfectly with Tea's green, green cash."
Probably true, but it didn't bother me one bit.
Mackenzie leaned forward and sighed. "Suburbs aren't big on makin' it easy for outsiders to find the way."
"Another way the rich are different from thee and me." The road was indeed dark, with the night sky covered by clouds, a paucity of street lamps, and nothing like an address on the curbs. In fact, nothing like curbs. The straggling March grass of the expansive lawns ended at the road's blacktop. The unwritten message was clear—if we didn't know where we were, we didn't belong here.
I'd have thought Mackenzie was used to unlit spaces, however. He'd been raise outside New Orleans in a place I envisioned drooping with moss, humidity, and snapping creatures—and lit only by fireflies and swamp gas.
We passed an attenuated estate now filled with enormous raw homes: châteaux, haciendas, and nouveau Elizabethan half-timbered concoctions, all barefaced against the elements until their scraggly landscaping filled in. On a hill above them loomed a still larger structure, once the manor house. A sign announced: EVERGREEN ACRES, A RETIREMENT FACILITY.
Evergreen sounded familiar. I'd thought it was a nastily ironic name for its inhabitants, so deeply into their own brown autumns that they had to live there. I checked the directions. "Turn here," I was finally able to say. If homes lined this new road, they were too far back and too far apart to be visible. We drove in a tunnel of night. "It'll be on our left in a while." I said it out loud to reassure myself.
Even in profile, Mackenzie showed the full force of his concentration on the dark and unfamiliar road. "You're being a really good sport about this," I said. Without protest, he'd agreed to accompany me, even though I knew a Philly Prep fund-raiser wasn't his number-one choice of how to spend his leisure time. Nor was it mine—except when it was being held at Glamorgan. In any case, I had no choice. I had been told to come and had been handed a set of tickets. I was going to be the Faculty Poster Girl, because I had helped alert the Roederers, through their son Griffin, a student at our school, to the pressing needs of the library. Besides, it wouldn't have looked good had not a single teacher attended, but we weren't paid enough to squander a cent—or the hundred dollars each ticket cost—on a gala. Particularly when it meant mingling with the parents of our kids—the trees those apples hadn't fallen far from. "Thanks," I said, patting his gloved hand.
His understanding and willingness gave me hope for our experiment in living together. Maybe we two bullheaded people could manage to find enough crossover points to braid our lives together. Things like, "Oh, you're Farley's mother? The one with the jug ears and no brain? Heard a lot about him."
"You're a real twenty-first-century sensitive kind of guy," I said.
"Still, I miss the joys of a quiet night at home." He sighed. "Just you—in that dress—an' me and a fire goin'…"
I wished I could believe I was the object of his homebound lust, in or out of my gown, but I doubted it, no matter what he'd say. I knew that what he secretly sighed for was, instead, his new computer. Friends swore this was a phase he'd outgrow, but meantime, Mackenzie yearned only to surf the Net and search the Web and electronically natter about topics of subminimal interest.
What a sexy, interesting man he'd been, pre-Internet. "You know," I said, "watching you watch a computer screen…well, it's too intense for a steady diet. Too overwhelmingly exciting. I need to come up for air, catch my breath, balance the madness of it all with something drab and boring—like a fabulous party in a mansion."
He chuckled, unfazed. He and his pet computer were above my barbs.
"I think we're close now," I said. "Coming up on our left any minute: fabled Glamorgan."
"Be still, my heart," Mackenzie said.
Glamorgan had been named after a place in Wales, like so many other Main Line sites: Radnor, the township it was in, as well as Bryn Mawr, Bala-Cynwyd, Narberth, Merion, Berwyn. All were remnants of the Welsh Barony, fifty thousand acres granted by William Penn to Quakers from Wales. I don't know what Glamorgan means in Welsh, but when I heard or read mention of the house, it was the glamour portion that shimmered and reverberated. And the stardust spilled over to its owners.
"Don't be disappointed," Mackenzie said, as if reading my mind, "if neither they nor their house is what you fantasize. These are the Philadelphia suburbs, after all, where snobbery is so reined they invert it. Old money's hallmark is that it's invisible. You're supposed to look penniless. You know: I'm so secure, I don't have to prove anything. If you don't know who I am, you're nobody, so who cares? Plainness is the only Quaker vestige you people have left, and it makes no sense."
I just hate it when he says you people, lumping me with the entire population of the Delaware Valley, even if this time, my lump was the incredible wealthy segment. "Is it possible your standard of decor is based on you people's New Orleans bordellos?" I murmured. "The Roederers are anything but drab. The day of the school ceremony, Tea Roederer wore a velvet patchwork suit with high-laced boots. And amber jewelry that must have once belonged to the czarina. And he wears gorgeously cut suits and funny black-rimmed glasses—they aren't drab. Not flashy, but interesting, like they're happy with themselves."
"Goodness me," Mackenzie said. "I've never heard you do fashion commentary before."
"Only because I, too, expected dowdy. And older. They are in their forties, which seems too young for the amount of fun they have."
I peered through the windshield, looking for the silhouette of The House, but all I saw was landscaping and high stone walls.
And a peculiar light fluttering behind a clump of trees on my side of the road. As if there were lanterns on the ground, and all of them with erratic batteries.
But, of course, there were no lanterns. Only that warm, erratic ground light, as if the sun had fallen on the side of the road ahead, illuminating unevenly from below so that naked branches became grotesque silhouettes, grabbing at the air.
The car moved on slowly as Mackenzie studied the left side of the road, looking for the house. Fire. I tried to say so, but only fff emerged because we rounded a small bend, and what I saw pushed all the words and horror out shapelessly, squeezed into a scream.
Mackenzie hit the brakes so hard we skidded, nearly slamming into a massive stone post. "What the hell—" Then he, too, saw. He flung open his car door and raced toward the ragged light, toward what I'd seen—a man hanging from a bare-branched tree, dangling, broken-necked, above a pyre, his trousers, jacket, and hair licked by flames.
There was no saving him. Mackenzie could run and perform heroic measures and be as brave as could be. It would still be too late. It was obvious from where I sat, unable to move at all. The lynched man's eyeglasses had melted, their thick frames twisted into dripping shapes. It was too late.
Once he was close, Mackenzie seemed to understand the futility of intervention. He stared at the dangling body before turning back to the car, walking at a regular pace.
"We should—we have to—the police—fire company—" I said, when he returned. "Even though he's already—" I fumbled in the glove compartment. "Your cellular—in here?"
"Mandy. Wait." He put his gloved hand on my arm.
I shook my head and pawed at the compartment. I found maps and a small tape recorder, batteries, and a roll of quarters, but no phone. "Where is it?" I asked, more shrilly then intended. Yards away, the dead man twirled in thermal currents. The flames' angry orange reflected on our windshield, colored the planes of Mackenzie's face. 'We have to tell the people in the house to call—"
"Look," he said softly. "Carefully."
"I know it's too late and we can't save him, but even so—he has to be treated like—give him human dignity—we can't simply—"
"Look," he said softly. "Please."
I closed my eyes and shook my head. "Once was enough."
I forced myself. I saw the melted glasses again. And then I realized those were all I saw. No nose, or mouth, or features. Where were his eyes, his ears? Where was his face?
"Now look at the hands," Mackenzie said in the voice of a patient teacher.
Pale semicircles lacking digits. Like a rag doll's. Like the face.
"He—it's not a man, is it?" I whispered. "Never was."
"It's an effigy."
The burning form was stuffing covered with cloth. "Nobody was lynched." It comforted me to say it out loud, make it fact. "There's nobody there."
I should have laughed with relief, except that what was there—the effigy—had been designed to strike terror, and had succeeded. That nobody had been killed was a comfort, but that somebody had gone to great lengths to inspire fear negated that comfort.
The fire had been set on a gravelly semicircle beside the road. A turnaround, perhaps. Or maybe the site where rubbish was collected, because I spotted a trash can near the pyre.
Trash can. I looked across the road at the granite post we'd nearly hit. It and its twin across the drive anchored a pair of arched wrought-iron gates. And on each column, the word GLAMORGAN was carved in Gothic relief.
"It's them," I said. "Again. This has their trademark all over it."
"I think so, too. Those zombies."
The group he meant—the Moral Ecologists—had declared war on libraries and reading lists, determined to banish "mental pollutants." Our small private school was added to their hit list the day our Roederer Trust grant was announced. This past week, via the Moral Ecologists' placards, bullhorns, and pamphlets littering the school's entryway, I'd been informed that The Color Purple "corrupted' young minds, that Slaughterhouse Five would "promote deviant sexual behavior," and that both The Diary of Anne Frank and The Canterbury Tales were too sexually explicit for our students. Our students! It would be funny were it not so frightening.
The Moral Ecologists denied responsibility for the series of book-burning bonfires plaguing the city, but praised whoever had done the "good deed," calling them "civic heroes." The fires were nevertheless accepted as their handiwork, although nobody could prove the connection yet.
With each new fire, I saw visions of men wearing black boots and swastikas, of robotic salutes, the triumph of ignorance. The world hadn't taken those people seriously soon enough, either.
Tea and Neddy Roederer, repeatedly funding libraries, giving dollars like so many slaps in the face of the Moral Ecologists and their attempt to restore the Middle Ages, were their prime and fearless antagonists. I shuddered and realized I was shaking my head, trying to deny them access.
"Look at the effigy's glasses," I said softly. Neddy Roederer's trademark black-framed Buddy Holly glasses. "The trash can." The Moral Ecologists, accusing Neddy of promoting garbage, called him Trashman. "The kindling. All right angles. They're burning books again. Only now, they're also burning Neddy roederer, right at his front door."
"Not Neddy, an effigy," Mackenzie corrected me. "But how'd they know about tonight? Are we to believe they don't read books, but they do read the social calendar? Not that your school's fund raiser would be listed in it. How did they know?"
"Maybe it's coincidence. Or PR savvy. They always manage to schedule their events to get the most media attention. Remember the one at Penn the day the freshmen's parents came to visit? For all we know, they've harassed the Roederers for a long time."
"Let's go to your party," Mackenzie said.
I didn't budge. Couldn't. The party was now locked in with this malevolence. The excitement I'd felt seemed nostalgic, part of an earlier, more innocent, time. As if I'd been a child half an hour ago. The fire had burned away the shine and coated everything with ash.
"Nobody got hurt," Mackenzie said. "Remember. Nobody got hurt."
"Yet." I shivered, and it had nothing to do with the damp chill in the air. My thoughts were impaled on the idea of people who needed to intimidate and terrorize, on their lethal mix of hatred and self-righteousness, their potential power, their targets. I looked over at the smoldering books on the gravel, and then back at Mackenzie, resplendent in his tuxedo, and I sighed. "Nobody got hurt—yet," I said. "But they will."
And they were. It generally feels great to be proven right, which I ultimately was. But at no point did it feel great. It never felt anything but horrifying.
© Gillian Roberts.